MPhil in World History

people visiting the Departures exhibition

Visit to the Departures exhibition organised by The Barakat Trust and Asia House


World History at the University of Cambridge combines the study of global and imperial history with the study of Asian, African, Latin American and Pacific histories. It draws upon the expertise of faculty members in each of these areas, as well as in Middle Eastern, Oceanic and American history. The MPhil in World History enables students to develop strong expertise in this rich and expanding field of historical scholarship.

The MPhil in World History combines courses and a dissertation over a 9-month program. The core course focuses on historiographical debates in world history, leading to two options, usually in the history of a world region. From the first term, students also begin directed research for a 15,000 word dissertation, working closely with their supervisor from the Faculty’s World History Subject Group. Students will also take language classes, a component that is required but not examined. This may be in any language offered by the Cambridge University Language Centre, and may be elementary, continuing or advanced. In this way, the MPhil in World History offers students thorough preparation for an advanced research degree that will be highly valued in institutions across the world.

At a glance

All students will submit a thesis of 15,000–20,000 words, worth 70 per cent toward the final degree.

Students also produce three 3,000-4,000-word essays, two in Michaelmas term and another in Lent term; each essay is worth 10% of the final degree grade.

All students admitted to the MPhil in World History will be assigned a supervisor to work with them throughout the course, but crucially on the dissertation. Students will meet regularly with their supervisor throughout the course.

Students can expect to receive:

  • regular oral feedback from their supervisor, as well as termly online feedback reports;
  • written feedback on essays and assessments and an opportunity to present their work;
  • oral feedback from peers during graduate workshops and seminars;
  • written and oral feedback on dissertation proposal essay to be discussed with their supervisor; and
  • formal written feedback from two examiners after examination of a dissertation.

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Aims of the Course

The MPhil in World History aims to:

  • explore why world history is one of the fastest growing fields of research in current historiography, and how post-colonialism, trans-nationalism and their revisions have driven this burgeoning literature;
  • train students in the use of the printed, manuscript, visual and oral sources for the study of world history, and introduce the use of sources, within and beyond the colonial and national archives;
  • offer an intensive introduction to research methodologies and skills useful for the study of world history, including language skills;
  • introduce new regions, perspectives, connectivities and ruptures in historical processes in their widest extent, and in local, continental or oceanic settings;
  • provide an opportunity for students to undertake, at postgraduate level, a piece of original historical research in world history under close supervision: to write a substantial piece of history in the form of a dissertation with full scholarly apparatus.

By the end of the programme, students will have:

  • knowledge of key debates and trends in world history and historiography
  • skills in presenting work in both oral and written form
  • acquired the ability to situate their own research findings within the context of previous and current interpretative scholarly debates in the field

The Course

Core Course: Debates in World History

Under what circumstances did the scholarly field of world history emerge? How do its concerns overlap with, and differ from, those of global and imperial history, area studies, and post-colonial studies? This core course for the MPhil in World History provides an overview of key historiographical debates, through close reading of significant interventions in the secondary literature. It is taught through a series of eight two-hour discussion seminars, in which students will participate actively. The course will be run jointly, and members of the World History group will take specific sessions on fields in which they specialise.

Topics for 2018-19

  • Imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism and world history
  • The history of world regions
  • Economic history and world history
  • Pre-modern globalisation
  • Race and racism in world history
  • Christianity: the history of a world religion
  • Oceanic history and world history

Option Courses for 2018-19

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were witness to a proliferation of various forms of print and writing across the world, produced for eager, locally grown audiences. All sorts of texts, including serialised novels, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, local histories, self-help booklets as well as creative and popular literature, became available for public consumption. Taking these printed and written sources as its starting point, this MPhil option course focuses mainly on African case studies, but also draws on comparative examples from the Arab world, India, and the United States. Offering a cultural history of colonialism and modernity, the course examines not only the creation of new print genres, but also investigates how these genres made possible new kinds of political and social community. Through the lens of print cultures, we address a number of key themes in world history, including power, nationalism, ethnicity, gender and consumption. Each weekly topic showcases different case studies, allowing us to analyse the innovative vocabularies and textual forms that readers and editors constructed through their engagement with literacy and print. Significantly, this engagement was not only focused within and across local communities, it also occasionally reached out to transnational and global networks. To this end, we consider print cultures in a comparative global framework and critically analyse the usefulness of concepts such as the ‘public sphere’ and ‘cosmopolitanism’.

The initial site of European overseas colonization, and the earliest destination for Africans in the transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean region was the central nexus for the emergence of the modern world capitalist market.  As the earliest point of contact in the ‘Columbian exchange’ of crops, peoples, diseases, and animal species, the birthplace of the Atlantic sugar plantation complex, and the so-called ‘cockpit’ of strategic conflict between European powers, the Caribbean is a natural point of focus for scholars of political economy, race, colonialism, ecology, and culture. This course traces the strategic global conflicts and key economic processes that have tied the Caribbean region to Western Europe, West Africa, and North America.  Beginning with Spanish conquest and European inter-imperial conflict, this course covers the Haitian Revolution by which the initial site of European colonization gave rise to history’s first postcolonial nation.  The course goes on to cover the emergence of U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean basin, the development of Caribbean nationalism, the Cuban Revolution, and the rise of neoliberalism.  From Cuba’s Castroist dictatorship, to Haiti’s neoliberal ‘failed-state’, to the colonial holdovers of Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and Martinique, Caribbean societies have followed very different trajectories notwithstanding their shared histories of colonization, slavery and sugar.

An understanding of the historical formation of empires and their impact on the present is crucial to our comprehension of the contemporary world. In this course we shall examine a number of imperial formations, selected from around the world, with particular attention given to empires with broad regional and temporal spans. Comparisons will be drawn between different kinds of empires, their emergence, transformation, and demise. Political, intellectual, social and cultural perspectives on empire help to define the questions we shall formulate and address.

This course draws on the exceptional range and depth of expertise in the Cambridge World History Subject Group. After an introductory session on conceptual definitions of empire, the course proceeds on a weekly basis with presentations by experts in their fields. These classes may include a focus on the Portuguese and Spanish empires as early modern European maritime formations; an examinations of the land-based Ottoman and Russian empires; the modern French and British Empires; the colonisation of Africa and Asia after c.1800; African empires, settler colonialism, informal colonialism and company colonialism; contemporary American imperialism and China overseas. The course will thus offer students a means to understand rival and connected empires in comparative perspective. Analytical and conceptual problems are highlighted throughout. Students are encouraged to enter into debate with expert tutors; in this manner you will help to shape our collective exploration and understanding of the rich materials and complex problems and themes that constitute the subject matter of this course.

This option examines China as a global phenomenon through engaging with the question of the Chinese diaspora, focusing on Southeast Asia with sideway glances into North America and Europe. Both in scope and in magnitude, the movement of people from China into regions across the world remains among one of the great migrations of world history, and the relationship between China and its migrants one of continuing and evolving complexity, profoundly shaped by the course of world-historical events. Over the course of eight weeks we will critically situate the history of China and Chinese migration in a range of global problematics, including scale and periodization, diaspora, nationalism, gender, language, and class. Students are encouraged to read widely beyond the prescribed reading, and to bring perspectives from other aspects of the MPhil curriculum to bear on our exploration and discussion. In examining these themes, the central focus of this option will be to challenge students to rethink the dimensions of modern China and Chinese-ness as subjects of world-historical study, and to situate China within spheres of analysis different to, or alongside, those dictated by conventional narratives of the nation-state. The course thus aims to bring the study of China's modern history firmly into dialogue with methodologies and debates in global history.

This course will explore the history of South Asian migration in modern times. Migration is one of the key forces that has shaped contemporary South Asia and its relations with the wider world. It has had, and continues to have, huge implications for the regions where migrants have settled, for migrants themselves as well as for their descendants, and for the places and the people they have left behind. Diasporas have transformed the social and cultural fabric of the places where migrants have clustered, altering their patterns of consumption and encouraging the emergence of new notions of identity among migrants as well as their ‘hosts’.  South Asian migrants have frequently sought to intervene in the politics of their homelands, and their ‘long-distance’ patriotisms have often played a crucial role in these politics. The main intellectual currents of twentieth century cannot be understood without an analysis of the contributions of ‘intellectuals in exile’. Equally, diasporas everywhere have raised vexed questions of policy, and many governments (not only those in the western world) have responded by making it more and more hard for South Asians to move across borders.

The course explores patterns of mobility and circulation within and from early modern South Asia.  It considers how the establishment of British imperial control impacted upon old networks of mobility while stimulating new streams, and new forms, of migration. The consequences of partition, which sparked off the largest migrations in recorded history, will be discussed and analysed.  ‘Post-colonial’ migration has led to the formation of visible and influential communities of South Asians in many parts of the western world, but has also led to ever more systematic efforts to stem further migration, and both processes will be considered.  The course will encourage discussion and analysis about the forms of hybrid culture and ‘transnational’ belonging and that are believed to characterise South Asian diasporic lifestyles in the 21st century.

This course will explore the politics of South Asia since Independence through a focus on elections, approached from the perspectives of contemporary history, anthropology, political science and political theory. We will discuss the establishment of electoral democracy in South Asia and the changing nature of South Asian elections and electoral campaigning. The course will explore debates about the relationship between public policy, electioneering and electoral success in South Asia’s diverse democracies.

India was one of the first countries of the global South to undertake opinion polls and polls are ubiquitous in Indian media today. This course will also investigate the institutional production of ‘public opinion’ and the concepts of ‘the public’ held by policymakers in South Asia, with the aim of understanding how these ideas have shaped South Asia’s complex political landscape.

There are five components to the MPhil in World History:

  1. core course
  2. first option
  3. second option
  4. dissertation
  5. language

Core Course

  • Debates in World History (weekly seminar x 8 weeks)

Option 1

  • weekly seminar x 8 weeks

Dissertation research and supervision


  • 1 session per week

Assessment & Dissertation

Part I

Each of three modules in Michaelmas and Lent (one Compulsory Core, and two Options) will require a 3,000-4,000 words essay (or equivalent). Each will count toward 10% of the final degree mark, for a total of 30%. Taken together, these are Part I, and students must receive passing marks in order to move to Part II.

Students will also prepare a 2,000 word dissertation proposal essay due in the Lent Term. This essay will be unassessed but students will meet with their supervisor to discuss the essay and get feedback.

Part II

The Dissertation or Thesis is Part II of the course. Each student on the MPhil will prepare a thesis of 15,000-20,000 words.The thesis will be due in early-June and will count for 70% of the final degree mark.

An oral examination will only be required in cases where one of the marks is a marginal fail.

The Dissertation, or thesis, is the largest element of the course, worth 70% of the final mark.

Students are admitted to the University on the basis of the research proposal, and each student will be assigned a Supervisor who will support the preparation of a piece of original academic research. Candidates must demonstrate that they can present a coherent historical argument based upon a secure knowledge and understanding of primary sources, and they will be expected to place their research findings within the existing historiography of the field within which their subject lies.

All students should be warned that thesis supervisors are concerned to advise students in their studies, not to direct them. Students must accept responsibility for their own research activity and candidacy for a degree. Postgraduate work demands a high degree of self-discipline and organisation. Students are expected to take full responsibility for producing the required course work and thesis to the deadlines specified under the timetable for submission.